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HELEN WOOD: IS IT REALLY WORSE TO BE AN ESCORT THAN A GOLD-DIGGER?
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On the edge of disaster James Forsyth says Cameron is dangerously complacent
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Water, water everywhere
Scottish readers may be puzzled to see so many newspaper headlines about drought. Parts of the country, notably the Borders and the western Highlands, have already received one and a half times their normal rainfall for May. On Monday — as the water companies proposed seasonal tariffs to discourage customers from watering their gardens and taking baths in dry summers — Rannoch Moor in the Highlands received two and a half inches of rain.
Where the headlines were written, however, the drought is acute. In London, Kent and East Anglia, there has not been a full day’s rain for nearly three months. Rainfall in May over a wide band of eastern England has been less than a fifth of normal. Crops are threatened and reservoirs are emptying. All of which raises a question: is there not some way to bring water from the soaked parts of Britain to lubricate the parched gardens and fields of the south? After all, Birmingham has drawn water from the Welsh hills since 1906; surely, with the benefit of a century of technological improvement, it would not require too much effort to bring it 100 miles further, to London?
Almost 20 years ago, a report by the National Rivers Authority came to just this conclusion. When we last had a dry summer, five years ago, the Institution of Civil Engineers updated the figures in that report and concluded that a river-transfer scheme to bring water from Wales to the south-east would cost £330 million and be capable of transferring 550 megalitres of water per day at a cost of £2.48 a megalitre. That would be cheaper than building reservoirs in the south-east.
Where Victorians built great dams and culverts, the best that our leaders can come up with is bizarre little initiatives such as appointing a 16-year-old, Hannah Jewell of Mold, north Wales, as a ‘climate-change champion’, in which guise she lectures the proprietor of her local launderette on not running machines half full. We live in a temperate maritime climate frequently lashed by Atlantic storms, but water is treated as if it were a scarce resource in danger of running out. It is the last household necessity whose supply is frequently controlled by rationing. Hosepipe bans have become a fixture of virtually every summer.
The solution to Britain’s water problems is neither climate-change champions nor rationing nor praying for rain, but a proper market — with meters in every house, so that consumption is linked to usage. The water companies have resisted meters, doubtless fearing that they would allow the sort of competition that occurs in the gas and electricity markets. Such competition, however, is precisely what they need.Without it, water privatisation has simply turned a national monopoly into a series of local ones. Properly competitive water companies would have both the incentive and the access to finance to invest in serious engineering.
Our population of 60 million is projected to grow by 10 million within a generation. These people will need water. Politicians tend to respond to crises and ignore longterm problems such as this. Only the market can assure Britain’s water supply — and installing meters is the vital, long-overdue first step.
At last, decorum has returned to BritishAmerican relations. Barack Obama’s brief visit to Britain was an agreeably formal affair, with far less palaver than accompanied George W. Bush’s visit. David Cameron was well-mannered, but without Gordon Brown’s fawning teenage infatuation. When the Duchess of Cornwall posed beside Michelle Obama, there was no jostling for position, no contest of designer labels.
After such trips there is always a temptation to analyse body language, as if this were a proxy for relations between nations; to fret about whether a particular president is personally well disposed towards Britain. What this visit demonstrated, in a quiet way, is that British-American relations supersede the personalities of all involved.
This time, all the main players seemed to understand that instinctively. Obama is said to be antipathetic to Britain’s colonial past, but he greeted the Queen warmly and with the spectator | 28 May 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk obvious enjoyment. There was no showing off, no upstaging; it didn’t matter who won at ping pong or whether the Duchess offered shopping tips to the First Lady.The personalities were the least important factor. This is as it should be. Cameron and Obama represent nations with a common language, common ideals and a common purpose. Many countries talk about righting the world’s wrongs. But when the time comes for action, Britain is, and will always be, America’s closest ally.